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Expanding Pathways to College Enrollment and Degree Attainment

Last week, non-profit research firm ITHAKA S+R released an issue brief, discussing the policies and reforms necessary for states to increase access to higher education and degree attainment. The authors write that the U.S. has a projected shortage of five million workers with appropriate postsecondary education credentials by 2020, noting that most undergraduate students today are nontraditional.

A First Try at ROI: Ranking 4,500 Colleges

Anthony Carnevale, Ban Cheah, and Martin Van Der Werf of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report ranking the ROI of all 4,500 colleges and universities listed in the College Scorecard.

Included among the researchers’ notable findings:

  • Community college and many certificate programs have the highest ROI in the short term (10 years).
  • Colleges that primarily award bachelor’s degrees have the highest ROI in the long term (40 years).
  • Public colleges have higher ROI than private colleges in the short term.
  • Degrees from private nonprofit colleges generally have a higher ROI in the long term than public universities.

Maryland’s Kirwan Commission

One of the frequently covered topics in higher education is the cost of college and specifically, the reduction in state funding for their public institutions. Less covered nationally is adequacy of the cost of K-12 education. In 2016, the Maryland governor and legislature jointly formed the Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission after its chair. The goal of the bipartisan Commission was to research successful school systems globally and make recommendations to make Maryland’s world-class. Governor Larry Hogan appointed two people to the commission, and the state senate president and house speaker appointed five persons each. There were an additional eight members appointed by the State Board of Education, Maryland State Education Association, Baltimore Teachers Union, Maryland Association of Boards of Education, Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, Association of School Business Officials, Maryland PTA, and the Maryland Association of Counties.

The Public Higher Education Funding Conundrum

It’s no secret that state funding per student for public higher education has dropped significantly since the 2008 recession. In response to lower tax revenues during the recession, states cut their funding to higher education (a non-mandated spending item in most state budgets) and public colleges and universities responded by increasing tuition, recruiting more out of state students, eliminating faculty and staff positions, and shuttering academic programs. Many states’ tax revenues have rebounded since then, and yet their funding for higher ed has not. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only four states out of 49 analyzed have increased their funding per student above the 2008 funding levels.

Given that state treasuries have purportedly returned to pre-2008 levels, one might assume that states would no longer be cutting higher education funding. However, that’s not the case. At least three states recently indicated the potential for change, and not necessarily positive change. The most notable was Alaska, where Governor Mike Dunleavy cut the state’s higher education funding by more than $130 million on June 28. The cut represented 41% of the state’s annual higher education budget. After the legislature failed to override his line item veto cut, the board of regents declared financial exigency. After weeks of discussion, the Regents and Governor agreed to reduce funding by a cumulative $70 million over three years. However, this occurred after the system president proposed merging the state universities under one entity, triggering a faculty vote of no confidence and a letter from the universities’ accrediting body. The Regents and the system president rescinded that recommendation, for now.

Why Skills Training Can’t Replace Higher Education

 

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why Skills Training Can’t Replace Higher Education,” Dr. George Kuh posits that “much of the current media-reported posturing by policy makers and pundits about the failure of U.S. colleges and universities to adequately prepare people for the 21st-century workplace is either ill-informed or misguided.” Dr. Kuh, chancellor’s professor emeritus of higher education at Indiana University, describes today’s media narrative as one focused on the need for vocational skills versus “useless liberal arts programs.” Multiple badges and certificates will be issued to indicate proficiency in certain skills and in the future, a trusted entity will “rack and stack” a combination of them to issue the equivalent of a college degree.  He acknowledges that “short-term vocational skills-based programs are critically important and well-suited for many.” However, he also questions why this should be the desired policy for addressing the needs of the 21st-century workplace.

 

Dr. Kuh notes that “workplaces, societal institutions, and the world order are only going to get more complicated and challenging to navigate and manage, increasing the need for people with accumulated wisdom, interpersonal and practical competence, and more than a splash of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and altruism.” He also notes that there are “no short cuts” to enabling people to deepen learning, develop resilience, and convert information into action. Shortening education in order to bolster productivity is shortsighted for many reasons, and he expects that many learners from traditionally underrepresented groups will likely gravitate toward these shorter and less expensive training programs at the risk of delaying or denying themselves a foundational baccalaureate degree. He calls on business leaders to speak about what the country needs from our postsecondary system and for a re-balancing to occur based on their experience leading their corporations through this era of rapid, technology-driven change.

 

The 60-Year Curriculum

 

A friend recently sent me an article from The EvoLLLution,Preparing a Traditional University for the 60-Year Curriculum,” by Josh Herron, dean of Online and Continuous Learning at Anderson University. Herron discusses ongoing corporate initiatives to train and retrain their employees, noting that universities should consider the 60-Year Curriculum (ages 15-75) as a framework to prepare people for lifetime learning in order to continually re-tool or upskill because of technology disruption eliminating their jobs. Citing badges, certificates and “other modular approaches,” in addition to Competency Based Education (CBE), he assesses the Anderson initiatives accomplished thus far using this framework.

One of the articles he notes was an EvoLLLution interview with Hunt Lambert, dean of Continuing Education and Extension at Harvard. In the interview, Mr. Lambert suggests that higher education morph from its two-year A.A., four-year B.A., two-year M.A., and seven-year Ph.D. learning models to a 60-year model to cover the likely major career changes/shifts of adult learners. I found it particularly noteworthy that he stated that if higher education institutions do not make these changes, then Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Salesforce, and others will. He further states that, in the long run, any individual school is unlikely to supply more than 20 percent of any learners’ solutions from their faculty-based degree programs (italics are mine). I wholeheartedly agree.

Prelude to a Pricing Paradigm Shift

 

Ryan Craig’s opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed last week queried why tuition for online programs hasn’t tumbled given the benefits of technology and scale amassed by some of the largest online institutions. He cites several sources, including the BMO 2019 Education Industry report and a 2017 survey by WCET, noting that the average per credit, in-state cost for an online bachelor’s program is 14% higher than on-ground and that 54% of institutions are charging online students more than those on-ground.

Craig states that regardless of which survey you find most credible, few institutions are charging less for online students. He ponders why this hasn’t happened, stating that some colleges and universities are operating subscale online programs which precludes the benefits of cutting tuition. Others spend as much as $5,000-plus in marketing costs to attract and convert a person to an online student.

Yes, Employers Do Value Liberal Arts Degrees…But Will That Change Public Opinion?

Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) authored an article for the September 2019 Harvard Business Review touting the merits of liberal arts degrees. AAC&U represents institutions committed to the value of liberal arts programs. In fact, APUS is a member and recognized by its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission as a liberal arts institution.

Dr. Pasquerella notes that “it’s no secret that American higher education is under siege” and adds that politicians have fueled this dynamic by proposing legislation that would base funding on students’ employment after graduation and requiring institutions to amend mission statements citing such aspirations as “search for truth,” “public service,” and “improving the human condition.” She adds that the “achieve the American Dream” vision has been decoupled from higher education, keeping many individuals from recognizing that colleges and universities still contribute substantially toward societal and institutional transformation.

Transitioning

On August 22, 2019, I announced that I would retire from my position as CEO of American Public Education, Inc., (APEI) effective September 23. I also noted that I would continue as president of American Public University System (APUS) but would also retire from that role on June 30, 2020. Since today is my last as CEO, I wanted to reflect on my career and what might be next.

Forty-three years ago, I enrolled in the MBA program at Tulane University’s Graduate School of Business Administration (affectionately known then as TUGSBA, and now as the Freeman School). I conformed to the profile of many full-time MBA students at that time: liberal arts degree (A.B. in History from Duke) with no undergraduate business courses on my transcript. Most of my undergraduate curriculum consisted of reading, writing papers, and taking essay exams. The MBA curriculum reversed that experience with first year accounting, finance, economics, marketing, and statistics courses that were heavily oriented toward solving problems until the material was mastered.